A call to “begin creating synthetic sociology”

Two academics call for “synthetic sociology”:

Well, it’s time we begin creating synthetic sociology. Along with Nicholas Christakis, I recently laid out the potential for this new field:

We wanted to see if this could be done in humans. Like crabs, humans have specific kinds of behavior that can be predicted, in groups. To harness this, we created a survey on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, surveying lots of people at once.

We asked a couple hundred people to complete a string of 1’s and 0’s, and asked them to make it “as random as possible.” As it happens, people are fairly bad at generating random numbers—there is a broad human tendency to suppose that strings must alternate more than they do. And what we found in our Mechanical Turk survey was exactly this: Predictably, people would generate a nonrandom number. For example, faced with 0, 0, there was about a 70 percent chance the next number would be 1.

From this single behavioral quirk, it is theoretically possible to construct a way in which a group of humans can act as what is known as a logic gate in computer science. By running such a question through a survey of enough people, and feeding those results to other people, you can turn them into what computer scientists call a “NOR” gate—a tool to take two pieces of binary input and yield consistent answers. And with just a handful of NOR gates, you can make a binary adder, a very simple computing device that can add two numbers together.

What this means is that, given sufficient numbers of people, and their willingness to answer questions about random bits, we can re-deploy humans for a purpose they were not intended, namely to act as a kind of computer—doing anything from adding two bits to running Microsoft Word (albeit really, really slowly).

On one hand, it sounds like we are far from using these methods to have humans finish complicated tasks yet, on the other hand, this continues to build upon research about social networks and how information and other traits can be passed along and built on in a group of people. As these academics suggest, we have come some distance in recent decades in understanding and modeling human behavior and advances are likely to continue to come in the near future.

This also isn’t the first time that I have heard of social scientists using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk for studies. For a relatively small amount of money, researchers can find a willing group of participants for experiments or other tasks.

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